Bennington could be eligible for $4 million reimbursement from FEMAPATRICK MCARDLE / STAFF PHOTO
The Roaring Branch in Bennington looks peaceful on Thursday but during Tropical Storm Irene last year, the river rose almost high enough to jump its banks.
BENNINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency has given the town reason to be more optimistic it will receive reimbursement of up to about $4 million spent to repair damage from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 but a final answer — let alone a check — might still be some time from coming.
After Irene, town officials, with the Select Board’s approval, ordered work done on the Roaring Branch, which almost rose high enough to jump its banks, to alleviate the possibility that another heavy rainstorm could cause a flood that would damage homes and buildings. The work included shoring up the banks and removing trees and other debris from the river.
The town spent almost $4 million after the Select Board authorized an emergency credit line, but town officials were hoping there would be reimbursement from the federal government through FEMA. Over the summer, FEMA officials said they could not reimburse the town because money for the type of work that was done in Bennington should come from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Further complicating the situation, the NRCS has a policy of only funding projects which are submitted and approved in advance but the work in Bennington is already long done.
Both state officials, like Sue Minter, Vermont’s Irene recovery officer, and Vermont’s congressional delegation worked with Bennington and two other towns affected by the decision, Woodford and Rockingham, to change FEMA’s position.
Dan Monks, the town’s planning director and zoning administrator, said a letter dated Nov. 16 from Mark Landry, a coordinating officer for FEMA, was a step in the right direction. The letter said that staff members from NRCS and FEMA had discussed the issues and while the NRCS is sticking by its policy of only funding pre-approved projects, its staff agreed that the Vermont towns were facing “exigent circumstance.”
Landry said FEMA agrees that NRCS does not have the authority to fund the Vermont projects, which returns the decision to FEMA.
“It is important to recognize, however, that this determination is not a guarantee of public assistance eligibility,” Landry said.
According to the letter, FEMA officials will reach out to Bennington, Rockingham and Woodford to be sure that the requests for reimbursement and the description of what the towns have done to earn the reimbursement, which is called a “project worksheet” or “PW,” are complete.
Monks said he believes Bennington is ready.
“I feel like we’ve given them all the information they need to make a positive determination regarding funding, but I don’t get to decide that,” he said.
According to Monks, the town has already worked diligently with FEMA and a river scientist to document evidence that its project met the eligibility requirements. While Monks said he expects FEMA officials will be in the three towns as early as next week to discuss the PWs, he said he couldn’t estimate when a decision would come from FEMA.
“I’m hopeful that by clearing this hurdle, we’ll be able to get funded at least near the full amount ($4.2 million) that they originally decided we were eligible for,” he said.
Monks will be at the Select Board meeting on Monday, which starts at 6 p.m. at the Bennington fire facility, to give the board an update on the issue.
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